New look, same plan for PSU
UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s a new season for the two-time defending NCAA champion Penn State wrestling team and there will be some new faces in the starting lineup. The goal, however, remains the same — win another team championship with as many individual champions as possible.
That much was made clear Wednesday during the No. 1 Nittany Lions’ media day in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex.
“Being ranked No. 1, I guess it’s good. We’d rather be ranked 1 than 2, or maybe it doesn’t matter for us. I really don’t care how we’re ranked. We want to finish well. We want to finish great,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said.
“In the sporting world, everyone seems to want to be the underdog. We don’t want to be the underdog. We want to have that expectation. It’s a more difficult position to be in. It’s easy to be an underdog. That means, based on your history, your expectations are low. Based on our history, we want high expectations. It’s a different challenge and it’s more exciting.”
Penn State returns eight starters from last year’s lineup, including five defending NCAA champions — senior Zain Retherford (149 pounds), junior Jason Nolf (157), sophomore Vincenzo Joseph (165), sophomore Mark Hall (174) and junior Bo Nickal (184).
Penn State was the first team in NCAA history to win five consecutive individual championships at the NCAA tourney and is the only team in history to return all five the following season. Oklahoma State (2005) and Iowa (1997 and 1986) were the only other teams to crown five champions in one year, and none of those three teams returned all five the following season.
In addition, returning All-American Nick Nevills (285) and NCAA qualifier Matt McCutcheon (197) are back, as well as last year’s early season starter at 133, junior Jered Cortez, who has moved up a weight to 141.
Unless someone pulls off an unexpected upset, Penn State’s lineup from 149 through 285 is set. The first three weights — 125, 133 and 141 — figure to feature new starters this season.
Cortez, who suffered a shoulder injury and had surgery in January, seems to be the favorite at 141 to replace Jimmy Gulibon, who graduated. Cortez will be pushed by blue-chip freshman Nick Lee. Sanderson said it will take a lot for Lee to unseat Cortez.
“He’s got to be a clear-cut choice, the best option. Jered Cortez is tough. He has a lot of great experience and is totally healthy again. It’s going to depend on who we feel is going to give us the best chance to score points there. We feel confident that both of them have that ability,” he said.
Cortez said his shoulder is finally 100 percent and he has the added benefit of not having to concentrate so much effort on cutting and making weight.
“I’m thankful. Sometimes we take our health for granted. An injury like that, a setback, makes you appreciate waking up every morning and being healthy, being able to do laundry with my right arm and being able to cook meals,” Cortez said.
“It’s huge. It’s been a big game-changer for me, especially this preseason. I am focusing on the right things now. I don’t come into practice and think about how much weight I have to drop. I think about just getting better that day.”
Lee last year made the decision to forego his senior year of high school at Mater Dei High School in Evansville, Indiana. Instead, he moved in with his grandmother in State College, finished his high school credits and trained last season with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. Nick said his brother Joe, another Nittany Lion commit, will do the same thing during his senior year this school year.
“It’s a lot of fun. I’m getting a lot better. With the coaches and partners I have, it’s my favorite part of the day,” said Nick Lee, who didn’t sound like starting was crucial for him.
“It’s a process I’m going to let play out. I’m just in here every day trying to get better.”
The starter at 133 figures to be Corey Keener, who was a three-time NCAA qualifier at Central Michigan before transferring to Penn State for his final season of eligibility.
“You’ve got to bring your A game every day. That’s definitely going to elevate my level of competing,” said Keener, who added that he wasn’t satisfied how his four years at Central Michigan ended and that he needed a better situation to reach his goal of being a national champion.
“One of the biggest things I struggled with was the almost old-school approach we had at Central Michigan. Here, you have a lot more fun doing it and you’re working hard. They make wrestling fun, make you want to go out and score points. The training style and just their mentality of having fun with it and going out and scoring points and being relaxed is definitely going to pay off at the end of the season.”
Penn State has an opening at 125 after last year’s starter, Nick Suriano, decided to transfer to Rutgers over the summer. The protracted situation, which ended with the Big Ten granting Suriano the ability to wrestle this season despite a conference rule that says athletes who transfer from one Big Ten school to another must sit out and lose a year of eligibility, left a big hole in Penn State’s lineup.
“I’m very confident in our staff and our support staff. If the same thing happened again, we would treat it the same way again. We’re happy with the guys on our team who want to be here. We moved forward a long time ago,” Sanderson said.
The favorite at 125, based on experience, would be junior Ken Yanovich. Sanderson, however, said “We have three freshmen and they’re all scrappy kids, kids who wanted to come to Penn State. We’ll find out as the dust settles who our guy is at that weight class.”
The three freshmen listed on the roster are Austin Clabaugh, Justin Lopez and Devin Schnupp.
Suriano’s departure left many predicting that Penn State was vulnerable to being dethroned, especially by a loaded Ohio State team. Whoever the challenger or whatever the challenge, Sanderson sounded ready to take it on.
“There’s some great competition and that’s exciting for us. We love that. You want great competition. That makes the sport bigger. It makes it more intriguing, more exciting. There’s great competition individually and great competition team-wise. It won’t take much to be motivated,” he said.
“The better the competition, if you’re a real competitor, the more excited you are. There are a lot of great teams. Iowa will have a great team. Minnesota will have a great team. Lehigh has a great team. We’re not a team where we focus on any individuals. For us, it’s not about competing with any other team, it’s about us figuring out and being the best we can be.”
That process starts Thursday when Army West Point visits Rec Hall for the season opener.